Balance in Blended: Reflections on Teaching Hybrid Lecture Courses

At the 2014 Broadcast Education Association convention, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel entitled “Flipped, Blended or Hybrid: The Use of Emerging Technologies in Large and Small Classes.”  Below are the slides from my presentation, and my prepared remarks.



Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be on this panel on what I like to call hybrid learning. Of course, not everyone calls it that, which is reflected in the title of this panel. Some call it flipped learning, and others like the term blended. But I think a good case can be made that the term hybrid more accurately describes the kind of approach I’m discussing today.

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So I’d like to begin by taking a few moments to make the case for the term hybrid. Then I’ll present a very simple model for thinking about how to achieve balance in a hybrid course. I’ll briefly describe my experiences in hybrid course development, and provide some specific examples. And finally, offer some suggestions for making the most of a hybrid course.

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At first glance, the terms flipped, blended and hybrid may seem interchangeable. But I think there are some subtle yet important differences. When I think of the term blended…

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I think of a blender, which is a great device for creating smooth refreshing beverages. But when we combine in-class instruction with online learning, I hope we’re doing more than just creating an homogenous cocktail of instruction.

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When I hear the term flip, I think of a very easy to use video camera that unfortunately is no longer being made. Or I think of one of those waffle machines you might see at the breakfast bar at a motel. Of course, the term flipped has become popular, in part because of the Khan Academy model of doing homework in class, a flipping of the more traditional model.

But I believe that, especially in higher education, we’re doing more than just flipping or blending. We’re creating something new that combines the best of both online learning with classroom instruction. We’re creating a hybrid.

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I’ve been driving a hybrid car for many years, and it combines a gasoline engine with a battery powered motor, a combination that helps me get better gas mileage. But the real beauty of my hybrid isn’t just that it blends both of these modes of propulsion, and I hope it never flips over on me. No, what makes it a hybrid is the logic behind the combination. When I need to accelerate, the gas engine kicks in. When I’m scoping out a parking lot, I’m on battery power. When I’m pushing 65 down the highway, my car can draw from both gas and battery as needed. My hybrid car knows when to use the gas, when to use the battery, and when to use both.

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In a similar way, a hybrid course does more than just blend classroom instruction with online learning. It does more than just flip what used to be done in class with traditional out of class work. It draws from the strengths of both teaching modalities to move students toward their learning goals. And it’s that deliberate and thoughtful balance between the two modes that makes a hybrid course something more than just the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are different approaches to achieving that balance. We all have different experiences in the hybrid mode, and we all offer unique insights. So let me just briefly discuss my experience with the hybrid mode, and some of the insights I’ve gained.

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Over the past three years, I’ve been involved in three hybrid projects. First I was part of the team that converted a large lecture course in intercultural communication into a hybrid course. That experience led me to convert the lecture course in mass communication that I regularly teach into a hybrid. And this past year, I’ve been part of the public speaking hybrid course team.

In each of these hybrid efforts, a first step was to clearly identify the learning outcomes, and decide whether those outcomes would be best achieved using class time, or online learning, or some other approach, or a combination of methods. In other words, we considered the logic behind the balance of these teaching modalities. Let me illustrate this with a simple model.

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I think it’s helpful to divide the instructional components of a course – the things we do to advance learning – into three somewhat overlapping areas: those that seem to belong in the classroom environment, those that lend themselves to the online environment, and those that lie outside of both environments. For example, I often put major exams in the classroom, where I can more carefully monitor the testing environment. But shorter and less consequential quizzes are fine in the online environment. And I often have students read a textbook, so I would put that in the third category – neither in class nor online.

Note there is some overlap in the circles in my model. Some things can combine modalities to advance learning goals. For example, most of the hybrid courses I have taught are large lecture hybrid classes, so I devote some class time to lecture. After all, the class meets in a lecture hall. But at the same time I try to provide online content that complements and extends the in-class lecture mode. And I do that by creating short online videos that in many respects serve as the online equivalent to lectures.

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Let me give you an example. Here’s a brief clip from one of the first online videos students see in my mass communication class.

Now of course that’s just a brief sample to give you an idea of what I do. In this particular course, students watch about 80 of these videos.

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I’ve found that these online videos work best when they are presented in what I call an “online learning module.” Each module consists of a series of 6 to 8 short videos, and each of the videos are around 5 to 10 minutes in length. So it takes students about an hour or so to complete each module – about the equivalent of a class period. By breaking up the modules into shorter videos, it more closely reflects what I do when I lecture in the classroom. I don’t drone on for an hour. I try to stop every few minutes, ask if there are any questions, or ask students to discuss something, or ask some clicker questions. And I try to replicate this experience online.

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For example, I present the videos using a quiz format. That is, each video is on a separate web page with a few questions below the video. Students watch the video, answer the questions, and click the button to go to the next page in the sequence. This not only insures that the students watch the videos in sequence, but it also generates a score, which I can use as part of their grade. And just as I do at the end of most class lectures, at the end of each online learning module, I review the key concepts, and pose a discussion question for an online discussion forum.

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One advantage of online learning is the time flexibility offered by asynchronous content, so I think it makes sense to embrace that advantage. In my hybrid courses, I tend to avoid strict synchronous “appointment learning” in the online environment. Instead, I practice what I call disciplined asynchronous delivery. By that I mean that students must complete the online work during a clearly defined window of availability, typically a week. But students are free to spend as much or as little time as they want to complete their online work. Now of course, some students are going to spend the absolute minimum amount of time. But I’ve found that you can encourage them to spend more time if you make it worth their while. For example, I allow students to attempt each of the online learning modules as many times as they wish, with their score being the average of all of their attempts. I think this fosters mastering of the material. Further, our learning management system keeps careful records of the time students spend on task, so I can keep tabs on how much time students spend with online content.

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Speaking of time, I know I’m likely running low at this point. So in my remaining time today, let me just offer a few suggestions on how to make the most of a hybrid course.

First, try to create content that is both flexible and reusable. If you’re going to spend hours recording online videos, you might as well try to make videos that can go a few rounds. That’s one reason behind the logic of creating shorter online videos rather than longer videos. It’s a lot easier to update a five minute video than it is to redo a fifty minute video lecture. Shorter videos also enable the redeploying of content in different contexts. For example, we’ve been able to use some of the hybrid content we created in the intercultural communication course to create a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.

I think it’s also important to provide good audio in online content. You might have noticed that I used a bit of music at the start of the sample clip I showed earlier. I use a lot of music, both in class and online, because I want to try to engage the students both through what they see and what they hear. I use high quality microphones to capture my voice, and add audio processing as appropriate. I encourage my students to use headphones when listening to the online videos, so I want to make sure that the audio I create is “earphone worthy.” Perhaps it’s my professional background in radio that makes me more sensitive to this sort of thing, but from my experience, there’s much to be gained from paying attention to audio.

I think it’s also important to design online components that work well on small screens. As instructors, we often view our content on laptops or desktop computer monitors. But students are increasingly consuming online content on tablets and smart phones. So I try to keep these smaller screens in mind when I design online content. At the very least, that means bigger fonts, centering content in “screen safe” regions appropriate for a variety of possible aspect ratios, and testing content with a wide variety of hardware and software scenarios before deployment.

Finally, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to devote some class time to keeping students on track in the online environment. Let’s face it, students have a tendency to focus on the minimum requirements to achieve the grade they want. While it’s a good idea to convey those requirements through online communication, it’s even more important to take advantage of their attention during class time to reinforce what they need to do to succeed. One way I do this is by including a checklist as my very first clicker question in each class. The checklist identifies the specific things a student should have completed by that point, and I ask students to click A if they’ve done all of those things, B if they’ve done most, etc. Of course I don’t know if they are telling me the truth or not, but that’s not really the point. I’m trying to encourage them to engage in some self-assessment of their online efforts. I follow this up with a few additional reminders during class, including an end-of-class checklist – spelling out what I want them to do before our next class. I think these frequent reminders help students stay on track, and encourage them to maintain the discipline needed to be successful with online learning.

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I hope my comments today about achieving balance in the hybrid environment has been helpful, and I look forward to some discussion later on in the hour. If you would like to continue the conversation beyond today, here is my contact information. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

On Defining Communication Research

One of my colleagues, Dr. Gina Castle Bell, has asked her students in our undergraduate introductory course in communication research to go on a “scavenger hunt” asking professors in our department for the answers to some basic questions about communication research.  Some of these questions are similar to those included in an activity that another one of my colleagues, Dr. J. Kanan Sawyer, has been using for years in one of the courses she regularly teaches.  Just as I found it useful to respond to Dr. Kanan’s students in a blog post, I thought it would be useful to do the same for Dr. Castle Bell’s students.  So below are the questions students are asking, and my responses.

•What is the difference between Communication & Communications?

For the average person, these two terms may seem  interchangeable.  Indeed, many of my students will say they are communication majors and in the next breath say they major in communications.  But for many who are serious about studying communication, there is a significant difference.

When scholars of communication use these terms, they generally use the singular term to refer to the process of communication, and the plural term to refer to the products of communication.  Communication is the process of creating and sharing meaning.  Communications are the tangible “things” produced as a result of that process, and in particular, the things produced by industries that make money by selling those things (like newspapers and magazines and movies) and/or sell advertising in those things.

Let me quote from my earlier blog post

The term “communications” typically is used to describe the products of communication: things like newspapers, radio programs, TV shows, films, etc. Within the discipline of communication, there are those who take offense when an “s” is added to the end of the term. This is especially true among those who don’t study media, since the term “communications” implies a focus on media and media products. In common use, when people refer to communications as a discipline, they typically mean some kind of applied media study, such as that offered by journalism schools and radio-TV-film programs. As you might imagine, I’m not too bothered by students who say they are “communications” majors, but some of my colleagues cringe when they hear that.

This last point, about colleagues who take offense at the term “communications,” reflects a fundamental belief by some scholars that studying the process of communication is a “purer” area of study then is the study of media products.  As someone who studies media, I find this bias toward process rather narrow-minded.  It reminds me of the heated but often pointless turf wars in the English discipline between those who teach writing and those who teach literature.  Quite often, composition teachers don’t get the same level of respect in English departments that literature professors enjoy.  I find it ironic that in the English discipline, the study of products (literary criticism) is often considered “purer” than is the study of process (how to write).

But in all honesty, this distinction between communication and communications is rarely made by the average person, or even the average undergraduate student.  And I can’t say I blame them.  Academics often take themselves too seriously.

•What is communication research? How would you define it?

Let my start by defining research.  Research can be defined as a systematic investigative process, where a scholar seeks to use broadly accepted methods for uncovering new information which can contribute to the effort of expanding public knowledge.  Research can refer to both the process of doing scholarly inquiry (i.e., to “do research”) and the results of that inquiry (typically, but not always, as published in scholarly literature, including books, journals and presentations at academic conferences).  I like to think of the “re” in “research” as suggesting a repeated form of searching for truth: scholars search for the truth, but more importantly, they “re-search” for the truth, searching again, and again, over and over, re-looking and re-examining their subject of interest, looking for any new bits of information that can increase understanding.

Defining communication is something I at least tangentially addressed in my earlier blog post.  And I’ve defined it above as “the process of creating and sharing meaning.”  Actually, I often give my students an even simpler definition of communication — the process of creating meaning — since I like to focus on the creative act of communication, and I believe that all meaning is shared (at least all expressed meaning is shared) so it’s a bit redundant to include “sharing” in the definition.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt to include the concept of sharing in a definition of communication.  After all, the Latin root of the word, communis, means “to share” (or literally, to make common) and is the root of other “sharing” words, like community, commonality, commune and communicable.

Stated simply, then, communication research is scholarly inquiry into the process of creating meaning.  But that’s still too broad to be of much practical value.  In practice, communication researchers tend to study different contexts for communication, such as interpersonal communication, group communication, organizational communication and mass communication.  Communication researchers also tend to vary in the methods used (more on that in the last question asked, below).  And communication researchers also vary in their devotion to expanding public knowledge; there are many applied communication researchers, especially in the communication media industries, who devote most of their work at expanding the private knowledge of their clients.

•What types of communication research do you study?

First, I’m going to assume that the real question here is not what types of communication research I study; but rather what kinds of communication research I have done.  After all, most communication researchers study communication, not communication research (although there are a few methodologists who primarily study research methods — who study how to study).

I suppose this would be a good place to reference my vita.  Professors often list all the academic work they do in such a document; it’s like an academic resume.  Of particular relevance for this question is the section entitled “Scholarly Publications, Papers and Presentations,” starting on page 6.  Here I list all of the journal articles, book chapters, research papers, and conference papers I have authored (or co-authored) during my academic career.

If you browse through this section, you’ll see that my research agenda has evolved quite a bit over the years.  When I was just getting started in academic work back in the 1980s, most of my research efforts focussed on broadcasting.  My very first formal research publication was the thesis I wrote for my Master’s degree back in 1983.  It was entitled, “Future Radio: Video Music and Its Effects on Radio Listening.” This study examined how the then-new medium of music videos impacted listening to music on radio.  MTV was just getting started back then, and a lot of people in radio were concerned that once people got used to watching their favorite music performed on television, they would listen to music on the radio less.  It sounds a bit silly now, but there really were people afraid that MTV would put pop/rock radio stations out of business.  My study concluded that in fact, just the opposite was happening: the more people watched music videos on MTV, the more time they spent listening to music on radio.  And indeed, MTV had a significant influence on the evolution of pop music radio during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The 1990s was one of my most productive decades in terms of what I would call traditional scholarship.  My vita lists nearly 40 different publications and papers during this decade.  Many of these studies looked at various research questions related to broadcast media, including one of my most quoted articles, “Enhancing the Electronic Sandbox” which examined student-operated college radio.  Other broadcast-related topics I researched during this period included shortwave radio news, local television news, and public broadcasting.

It was during this decade that I began to focus more on digital communication technologies, and the emergence of what back then was called “new media.”  This included a number of journal articles, book chapters and papers on the topic of “flaming.”  Most people aren’t even familiar with this word anymore, but the “flame wars” that characterized much of the online communication of the 1990s was fascinating to me, and this phenomenon occupied a lot of my research time back then.  I wanted to understand why people could be so rude to each other in online communication, and what specific factors contributed to such aggressive communicative behaviors.  My research led to a “social influence model” to help explain flaming, which was the basis for the chapter I wrote for the 1997 book “Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment.”

During the first decade of this century, my research efforts became more focused on issues related to public broadcasting, and in particular, the efforts of noncommercial broadcasters in expanding their mission of public service to online communication.  I wrote a rather extensive history on noncommercial radio (for the book “The Radio Industry”) that some of my colleagues have kindly referred to as the most authoritative work on the subject.  I also did a lot of research into college radio, reflecting the years when I was chair of the Student Media Advisors division of the Broadcast Education Association.

My most recent scholarship has focused on the use of technology in teaching.  I’ve examined the use of clickers in large lecture classes, the educational value of online discussion, the use of social networks in education, and the use of music and recorded audio in lectures (something I’ve been doing for years in my introductory mass communication course).  And a lot of my work has looked at the trend of “hybrid” learning, which combines classroom instruction with online learning.

That may be a longer answer than most students want, but in reality, I’ve only touched upon a few of the highlights of my scholarly journey.  My research over the years has covered a lot of different areas.

•How would you explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?

The distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research are mainly at the methodological level.  That is, just about any research question can be approached from either quantitative or qualitative methods.  And often the best research efforts combine both quantitative and qualitative considerations.  I think our understanding of communication benefits from seeing things in terms of both quantities and qualities.

Quantitative research methods are fundamentally based on the counting of empirical data.  A quantitative research effort typically begins with a precise definition of what counts as a “unit” of data in the realm of interest.  Careful and deliberate observational methods are used to count those units, yielding various measures that can be documented and analyzed.  Rather than count every single possible unit of data, most social scientific researchers use statistical methods to make inferences from a sample from the data population, and the strength of those statistical inferences depends on random selection when drawing the sample.

A fairly straightforward example of quantitative research is audience measurement.  If you are a manager of a radio station, you want to know how many people are listening to your station, because you want to charge your advertisers a fair price for reaching those listeners.  The more people listen, the more you can charge for an ad.  Now unless you live in a very small town, you can’t ask every person who could be a potential listener whether they actually listened.  Instead, you randomly select people to measure their radio listening.  You establish precise rules for what “counts” as listening; for example, radio listening is typically measured in quarter-hours, and you count someone as a listener as long as they listen for at least 5 minutes out of a quarter-hour.  And you employ statistical methods for making inferences from your randomly selected sample of people to the entire population of the radio market you’re studying.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, focuses on identifying and understanding  observable qualities.  Rather than assuming that we can best understand something by breaking it down into countable units, qualitative researchers try to deeply understand as much as they can about the whole, in order to provide satisfying answers to “why” and “how” questions (as opposed to the more quantitative questions of “how much” or “how many”).  Qualitative research methods vary widely, but some of the most widely used in communication studies include ethnography, participant observation, case studies, and interviews.  Qualitative research methods are often employed in critical scholarship and cultural studies.

To continue with the example of the radio station owner, suppose he or she wanted to not only know how many people listened to the radio station, but also wanted a deeper understanding of the reasons they listen, and the environment in which they listen, and the functions radio listening serves for them.  In other words, to not just answer questions related to the quantity of listeners, but to answer questions about the qualities of listeners and “listenership.”  While these kinds of questions could be approach quantitatively, it’s likely that qualitative research methods would provide more satisfying answers.  A qualitative researcher might spend days or weeks just observing radio listeners in their “natural environment,” making careful notes of what they do, trying to capture every observable detail.  Building from this, they could compose a rich narrative of a “day in the life” of a radio listener.  Or perhaps interviews of radio listeners could be used to create a detailed inventory of their reasons for listening.

Now I have to say that I’ve greatly simplified the distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research methods here in order to provide a more vivid contrast.   In practice, quantitative researchers often count qualities, and qualitative researchers often seek to draw inferences from their specific observations to a broader population.

•Do you identify as asking more quantitative or qualitative questions?

I would say neither.  I have used both quantitative and qualitative research methods during my career, and I don’t identify myself in one methodological camp or the other.  I suppose if I was forced to make a choice, I would probably lean a bit toward quantitative.  That’s not because I value quantitative more than qualitative methods, but rather, because applied media research has tended to employ quantitative methods.   But in reality, I let the questions I want to answer drive the choice of method.

I suppose at a very basic level, people who are comfortable with math and statistics are more likely to use quantitative research methods, while those who hate math and prefer a good story prefer qualitative methods.  I’ve never been particularly uncomfortable with math; indeed, I rather enjoyed the math classes I had in college.  But at the same time, I recognize that a quantitative perspective can only take one so far in understanding the process of communication.  I think it’s a good idea for anyone studying communication to acknowledge the value of both quantitative and qualitative research methods, and to be willing to use both to advance understanding.

BlendKit 2012 Reflection: Teaching a Hybrid Course with Desire2Learn

I’ve recently been participating in an online course for teachers called BlendKit 2012. This open online learning experience provides a five-week introduction to blended learning, or what some call hybrid learning. It is sponsored by the University of Central Florida (UCF) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) with funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC).

Essentially, a blended (or hybrid) course is one that includes both in-person, face-to-face instruction with substantial online instruction. Students in a hybrid course spend some time in a physical classroom environment, and some time in an online learning environment. It’s becoming an increasingly popular “middle ground” alternative between traditional face-to-face courses and online courses. I’m attracted to the hybrid concept because it encourages an instructor to consider what kinds of learning activities work best in a classroom and what kinds work best online, and design courses that take advantage of the best of both modalities.

Participants in BlendKit 2012 are encouraged to post blog entries about their experiences with hybrid learning. So I thought this would be a good time to post something to my blog that I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. This past summer, I had the privilege of presenting at the Desire2Learn Fusion conference. This annual meeting sponsored by the popular learning management system Desire2Learn brings together faculty, administrators, technical support staff and vendors for a few intense days of sharing, exploring and pushing the boundaries of online learning. My presentation detailed my experiences as part of the instruction team that used Desire2Learn to develop and deliver a hybrid course last year in intercultural communication. I’ve embedded the slides of that presentation below. Perhaps it will prompt some interest among participants in BlendKit 2012 who may be using D2L as part of a blended (hybrid) course, or thinking about doing so.

Farewell, Podcast Producer?

Yesterday, Apple released Mountain Lion, the latest version of Mac OS (or what they are now simply calling OS X). And while I wasn’t surprised, I am disappointed that Podcast Capture, Podcast Publisher and Podcast Producer have become legacy software.

To be sure, there were signs that this day would come. When Lion was released last year, Apple added the Podcast Publisher app to interact with the new Podcast Library service on Lion server. Upgrading to Lion client did not remove the Podcast Capture application from the Utilities folder, so you could still use it to upload to Podcast Producer servers. And even though it was not turned on by default, you could still run Podcast Producer on Lion server, albeit with a few headaches.

Now it seems Apple just wants to bring the Podcast Producer era to an end. Introduced with Leopard server, the first Podcast Producer was not fully baked. Still, many OS X server admins, including myself, successfully overcome many of Podcast Producer’s initial limitations. When Podcast Producer 2 came out with Snow Leopard server, it seemed like Apple was finally taking the podcasting service effort seriously. While it wasn’t perfect, Podcast Producer 2 was arguably Apple’s best effort to date at offering in OS X Server a useable solution for creating, hosting and managing podcasts.

Unfortunately, it appears that Podcast Producer 2 was the last genuine effort by Apple to offer a podcast service with their server product. While Lion server included the simplified Podcast Library service, it was clearly not a replacement for Podcast Producer 2. Nor was the Podcast Publisher app in Lion client much of an improvement over the Podcast Capture app. Indeed, Podcast Publisher seemed little more than a weak, dumbed-down, iWeb-like app for podcasts. The app offered some nice “eye candy” for podcast creators, but one didn’t have to dig very deep to see that its functionality was at least a full step backward from Podcast Capture. Even Apple seemed to tacitly admit that Podcast wasn’t all that strong by keeping Podcast Capture as an option in Lion client, and Podcast Producer 2 an option in Lion server.

But with Mountain Lion, Apple appears to just want the whole podcast era to die. When I upgraded a Lion client to Mountain Lion yesterday, both the Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher applications went away. The installer wasn’t even polite about it. No notice to the effect that these apps would be removed from the computer. No moving of the apps to the trash. No moving the apps to some kind of “deprecated software” folder. Both Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher just vanished. Permanently deleted. It was a bit of a shock when I saw the dreaded question marks in the dock where Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher used to be.

For those of us who came to depend on Podcast Producer 2, it seems that running Snow Leopard Server is the most practical option for now. But how long that remains practical as Apple moves forward is an open question. Although I hate to admit it, eventually we may all have to forget the Podcast Producer era. It seems Apple already has.

Getting Flowplayer working on Lion Server

I’ve recently been working on upgrading Snow Leopard server to Lion server. While the new interface to Lion server looks good, it really lacks a lot of the options available in the Server Admin application of Snow Leopard. Lion also lacks MySQL, but that was fairly easy to install and configure.

What wasn’t so easy to figure out was why Flowplayer wasn’t working when I moved to Lion server. On some pages, the embedded Flowplayer swf file wasn’t even showing up. On other pages, the background image would appear, as well as the play button image overlay, but a black screen would appear as soon as one would try to play back a video.

After trying many things over the past week, I finally discovered that the issue was that Flowplayer wouldn’t work with Lion server’s Apache 2 configuration of gzip compression. These lines in an .htaccess file did the trick…

Options +FollowSymLinks
RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule \.swf$ – [E=no-gzip:1]

Actually, I only needed to add the last line, as I already had an .htaccess file that had the first two lines. I suppose I could have added these configuration directives in one of the httpd.conf files, but putting them in an .htaccess file ensures they won’t be overwritten by a software update.

I’m still struggling with other issues with Lion server, but hopefully I will be able to resolve them soon. I’ll try to document them here, not only in the hope that it might help others with similar issues, but also to remind me of what I might need to do in the event I need to reinstall. They may also be helpful should I eventually move to Mountain Lion server this summer.

Revolution 2.0? Social Media and the Egyptian Revolution

Earlier this week I participated in a panel discussion at West Chester University about the recent revolution in Egypt. Sponsored by the “Contemporary Issues” student organization, the program was titled “The Revolution in Egypt and the Impact of the Mass Media.” Besides myself, panelists included one of my colleagues in the Communication Studies Department, Dr. Ola Kopacz, as well as Dr. Larry Davidson and Dr. Bill Hewitt from the History Department, and Dr. Peter Loedel from the Political Science Department.

My prepared remarks centered around the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution. I traced some of the key recent events in social media, how it may be fueling what Wael Ghonim calls “Revolution 2.0,” and suggested that the “Internet Kill Switch” employed on January 27 may have been the final straw that brought down the Mubarak regime. I argued that the importance of social media to modern democratic participation in civic life urges us to be mindful of the state of Internet freedom in this country, and to understand the stakes in the current battle for “Network Neutrality” policies. I’ve embedded the presentation below.

[Note: The original presentation that was posted to the iWork.com beta is no longer available, because Apple has unfortunately discontinued iWork.com. The above embedded presentation is hosted on slideshare.com, which includes much, but not all of the functionality originally provided by iWork.com.]

App Store First Impressions

Today Apple launched the App Store for Mac. The App Store on the Mac is a lot like the App store for the iPhone/iPad/iPod that is part of the iTunes Store. I’ve been spending some time today trying out the App Store, have downloaded a few of the free applications, and have made a few modest purchases. Here are some of my initial impressions.

The App Store is installed when you update your Mac operating software to 10.6.6 (by selecting “Software Update…” from the Apple Menu). It is not available to those running older versions of the Mac OS, like Leopard and Tiger. This is not much of a problem for me, as I almost always run the latest version of the operating system. But I do know people who are still running older versions of the Mac OS who won’t be able to attend the App Store party, at least not until they upgrade (assuming they have an Intel Mac and can upgrade to Snow Leopard).

Once installed, the App Store icon appears in the dock, by default right next to the Finder icon. A link to the App Store also appears in the first section of the Apple Menu, right below Software Update. And of course, the App Store application can be found in the Application folder. The App Store for Mac is not hard to miss, but It’s not built into iTunes, where I suppose it could be confused with the App Store for iOS.

Although the App Store is a separate application from iTunes, it borrows heavily from the App Store on iTunes in form and function. You use your Apple ID to login, and iTunes Store account information is used for any purchases. So if you got an iTunes Gift Card like I did over the holidays, you can now use it to pay for Apps from the App Store. This makes those iTunes Gift Cards quite versatile: I can use them in iTunes to purchase music and music videos, rent and/or purchase movies and TV shows, buy audiobooks and apps for my iOS devices, plus I can use them in iBooks to purchase books. And now I can use them to buy software for my Mac. Sweet.

One of the first things I noticed after I launched the App Store was that it recognized quite a few programs already installed on my Mac. For example, instead of a “Buy” button next to the description for iMovie, there was an “Installed” button. This was true for all of the programs in the iLife and iWork suites, as well as some third-party programs that I had on my computer, like MacFamily Tree from Synium Software and Transmit from Panic Software.

But interestingly, not all programs that are on my computer show up as installed in the App Store. For example, I own iStopMotion Home from Boinx Software, yet the App Store does not seem to recognize it. At first I thought this might be due to having a different version installed, but no, the version on my computer is the same version that is available from the App Store. This behavior is not unique to Boinx products, as I noticed the same thing with Compartments from LittleFin Software and TapeDeck from SuperMegaUltraGoovy (yes that really is the name of the developer of this fine audio recording app). I suspect that programmers need to include something in a a program’s code in order for the App Store to recognize it as installed, so perhaps these programs just need to include this code in future versions.

The first program I purchased on the App Store today was a game called Chopper 2 from Majic Jungle Software. I own the first version of Chopper, and thought this would be a good time to upgrade to Chopper 2. The price was certainly right: Chopper 2 is just 99 cents (for a “limited time” according to the App Store). Purchasing was easy, and proceeded much like a purchase in iTunes. Once I clicked the Buy button, I saw a cute animation of the Chopper 2 icon flying from the App Store to land in the dock, along with a download progress indicator below it. Once installed, the Buy button became an Installed button in the App Store. Unlike my other apps that the App Store recognizes as installed, Chopper 2 was listed in the App Store under the purchases tab. It seems that only apps purchased through the App Store show up on this list.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the App Store was the dramatic reduction in prices on some of Apple’s products. Aperture, for example, retails in a physical box for $199, but costs just $79.99 as a download through the App Store. This is less than the price of the Academic version of Aperture, which unfortunately is not available for upgrade pricing. (I wonder if the App Store version of Aperture will be eligible for upgrade pricing when a new version comes out.) Even more dramatic is the cost reduction of Apple Remote Desktop. Yesterday this product cost $299 for the ten seat version and $499 for the unlimited seat version. But today it can be downloaded from the App Store for just $79.99. And since the App Store description doesn’t mention a seat limitation, this might be the unlimited version, which could make this a very tempting purchase. What is not clear to me, however, is whether the terms of the license for this product would allow me to use it to manage a small group of computers where I work. The license reads that I can install the software on computers that I “own or control,” so perhaps this might be permissible. In any case, it’s interesting that the version of ARD on the App Store makes no mention of a limit on how many clients one can control; I’m still not clear on why Apple decided to sell two different versions of ARD based on the number of clients anyway.

There are plenty of good apps available at good prices in the App Store. There are also quite a few not-so-good apps available, but I suspect the overall quality level of the software available will improve with time. Noticeably absent from the App Store are the big third-party software companies, like Adobe and Microsoft, which is perhaps not surprising. Staples like Roxio’s Toast and Parallels Desktop are also absent. Given the time of the year, I was really surprised not to find any of the major tax preparation programs available on the App Store. Neither Intuit’s TurboTax nor H&R Block at Home (formerly known as TaxCut) are currently available.

Another surprise was the absence of iBooks from the launch of the Mac App Store. Amazon’s Kindle app is on the App Store, so I suspect it won’t be long until we see iBooks released for Mac. But this raises an interesting possibility of having three programs on my Mac where I could spend my iTunes gift cards: iTunes, the App Store, and iBooks. Perhaps this is the start of a trend, and someday Apple will enable the use of iTunes cards in iPhoto for paying for cards and calendars.

In general, I think the App Store is off to a strong start. There are some inconsistencies in how it recognizes installed apps, and I hope Apple improves on this feature in a future update. I think the App Store could eventually move closer to the functionality of the MacUpdate Desktop App, recognizing all of the software on your computer and alerting you to any available updates. The current number of apps for sale in the Mac App Store is modest; at the moment, there are only 7 programs available in the news category, 8 programs in the Weather category, and 9 in the Medical category. But I suspect the number of available apps will grow quickly as developers recognize the potential of this new marketplace for Mac software.

Podcast Producer 2 and the iPad

Shortly after I got my iPad, I discovered something interesting. Whenever I visited one of the many web pages on my Snow Leopard Server with embedded videos created by Podcast Producer 2, the videos wouldn’t play. When I clicked the thumbnail, the image would just turn to a black square.

Some of you who read my blog know that I’ve written many posts about Podcast Producer 2, a key component of Snow Leopard Server. I’ve described various techniques for getting Podcast Producer 2 (PP2) to “play nice” with Windows Internet Explorer, and how I substituted the Quicktime plugin for the open source Flash player Flowplayer. Of course, Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, but that wasn’t a major issue since Snow Leopard Server dishes up a different version of a PP2 page for iPhones. I had hacked together a solution that would serve PP2 videos inside Flowplayer when viewed on a computer browser, but serve PP2 videos inside the native H.264 player on the iPhone.

But my little cludge didn’t work on Mobile Safari on the iPad. That’s because Snow Leopard Server doesn’t serve up a different page for iPads like it does for iPhones. Perhaps this is deliberate, since the bigger screen real estate on the iPad doesn’t necessitate the compact presentation of an iPhone-optimized page. Or perhaps Apple didn’t include in the latest update to Snow Leopard Server specific user agent detection code to serve iPad-optimized pages.

Whatever the case may be, I reported this situation as a bug to Apple a few days ago. I had hoped that the most recent Snow Leopard Server update would include code that would produce PP2 pages that could be viewed on the iPad, but no such luck. Hopefully, this will come in an update down the road. But until then, I’ve developed a workaround.

Here’s how I got PP2 to play nice with the iPad…

First, I downloaded the open source javascript library Modernizr from http://www.modernizr.com. This little gem allows one to detect whether a client’s web browser can handle HTML 5. Mobile Safari on the iPad can display HTML 5 video, and in fact, Apple explicitly recommends using the HTML 5 VIDEO tag to display video on an iPad optimized page in this technote.

I put the Modernizr javascript file in my web directory (I just put it at the root level). Then I added a line in the custom wiki theme that I use for PP2 pages. The line I added is just a simple SCRIPT tag that references the Modernizr javascript file. Essentially, every page the PP2/Wiki Server produces that uses this custom wiki theme will include a call to the Modernizr javascript library. This wasn’t hard to do; in fact, the process was very similar to what I did to add a call to the Flowplayer javascript library that I described in great detail in a previous post.

Next, I added the following bit of code in the expandMedia function found in wiki.js (and compressed_wiki.js)…


else if (Modernizr.video) {
var objectHTML = '<video autoplay width="'+img.width+'" height="'+(img.height+(extendHeight?16:0))+'" src="'+fullSrc+'?sessionID='+server().sessionID+'" controls></video>';
embed.innerHTML = objectHTML;
Element.hide(img);
}

Essentially what this code does is call on Modernizr to test whether a browser supports HTML 5, and if so, uses HTML 5 to display the PP2 video instead of presenting it with the Quicktime plugin. I use the autoplay attribute to cause the video to click when a user clicks on the thumbnail. And the controls attribute causes the video to be displayed with whatever playback control bar is provided by the browser.

Again, I describe in great detail in this previous post the process for editing the wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, since I used a similar technique for swapping out the Quicktime plugin for Flowplayer. I would certainly recommend making backups of the original wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, as well as any modifications, since these files will likely be overwritten by future Snow Leopard Server updates.

With these changes, the Podcast Producer 2 videos on my website can now be played on an iPad. Indeed, as an added bonus, these videos are now displayed using HTML 5 on any web browser that supports HTML 5, like Safari and Chrome. The Modernizr script detects whether the page is being viewed in an HTML 5 capable browser, and if so, my code swaps in the appropriate HTML 5 code.

My iPad is happy now. Here’s hoping that the folks at Apple who maintain the Snow Leopard Server code will produce an update that will work with an iPad someday. Until then, my little hack seems to do the trick.